The gift of garbage

I made coffee this morning that came packaged in a smart blue tin with a gold ribbon around it and was sealed with red wax, which was embossed with a coat of arms. The container screamed class and sophistication, something you would only drink on the most special occasion – the birth of a child, an anniversary dinner, your promotion to CEO of a major corporation, or a morning when you have forgotten to buy the no-name coffee you regularly drink from the bag-your-own-and-save supermarket. It was a gift someone had given us. I don’t remember who bestowed it upon our household, nor the occasion, so they wasted their money. No doubt it cost a small fortune, which is why there was only enough to make one pot of coffee. If there was ever a time to open that gift, it was this morning. It was called something like Royal Roast Number Seven: Queen’s Reserve. It’s probably the same stuff Kate Middleton and Prince William drank every morning on their honeymoon. No doubt in Buckingham Palace they keep it under lock and key to keep the servants from pilfering it.

I carefully loaded the drip coffee maker, filled it with expensive bottled water and turned it on. In eight minutes, I would be drinking coffee that had been hand-picked by specially trained monks who took a vow of silence, poverty and patience; monks whose only job was to keep these coffee beans from being bruised on their way from the bush to the roaster. Finally, I poured a cup. I’ll never forget that first sip. It tasted like I had brewed last year’s used kitty litter. I spit it out and tried to rinse the evil taste from my mouth. Coffee strained through a hobo’s sock would taste better than this.

As I was looking for more coffee in the cupboards, I kept finding little gift jars of food we had received over the years. Pickled cauliflower someone had bought at the county fair in a mason jar with a little swatch of gingham cloth on the top. What are we saving this for? Our next hoedown? Fancy hexagonal jars of exotic salsas with golden lids, jams and jellies in unlikely flavors – jalapeno coconut conserve, lima bean jam, fig seaweed jelly, kangaroo-tail soup.

The more I looked, the more I found beautiful, over-decorated cans, tins, bottles and jars of exotic sundries that had made it into our house. A tiny Christmas pudding from London, a cute little wooden tea caddy from Dublin, tapenade from Florence, Algerian couscous, candied kipper snacks, cactus salsa, several hot sauces from Louisiana to New Mexico, each claiming to be 10 times hotter than the bottle next to them. Since most of it claimed to be homemade, none of them have an expiration date.

The fancy canister of caramel popcorn was sold to us by a neighbor’s child during a high-school fundraiser. She was a sophomore then, and graduated from college two years ago. Because it was a fundraiser, we paid a dollar a kernel. I pried the lid off and found it had congealed into one large, unappetizing ball that was diamond-hard and as snack-alicious as an autopsy. There’s a jar of anchovy dip some friends had sent us many Christmases ago. Is it still good? That’s the trouble with anchovies – how do you know when they’ve gone bad? They would taste exactly the same. Anchovy dip could easily replace fruitcake as the gift food no one wants to get for the holidays.

Why hadn’t we eaten any of this stuff? Because we are waiting for a special occasion. What a disaster it would have been if I had pulled out the Queen’s Reserve coffee for dinner with the boss. The boss wouldn’t have seen the fancy package, the wonderful tin. He would just taste the horrible coffee, realize we were trying to kill him, leave quickly and give the big raise to Roberts, the office suck-up. I’d lose my job, and we’d have to eat all that horrible stuff in the pantry to keep body and soul together.

Jim Mullen’s new book “Now in Paperback!” is now in paperback. You can reach him at

Copyright 2011, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.

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